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Pilgrimage to Lourdes

 Header - On a Pilgrimage of desolation and growth at Lourdes

By John Horvat II


Upon arriving in Lourdes on pilgrimage on a cold, rainy winter day, I was feeling very much the pilgrim. I was cold, tired, and wet. The long trip had been exhausting and the walk in the drizzling rain from the train station to the hotel had drained me of energy. 

Grotto of Our Lady of LourdesAs I headed to the grotto of Our Lady, I was hoping to find consolation and comfort. However, the place that had been such a source of blessings before, now felt dreary and uninviting. Walking back to the hotel, there was an eerie silence around the sanctuary that left me perplexed. Nothing seemed to be going as planned.

The next morning after a good night’s rest, I returned to discover what others had told me was really true. During the winter, this extremely popular Marian shrine visited by millions is largely empty. There are no rosary processions or other activities. I had come prepared for “empty” but not for “desolate.”

 

A Desolate Picture

However, that is what I found. During the winter, and especially this very cold winter, Lourdes is absolutely desolate. There is no other word to describe it. All the hotels, restaurants, and shops are shuttered in the general sanctuary area. My own hotel had just two occupants. Almost no one was in the streets. Even the omnipresent souvenir shops were limited to five or six that stayed open for limited hours.

There were times—during the day as well as night—when absolutely no one was in the large basilica plaza that normally holds thousands. At the grotto itself, usually only a few knelt before Our Lady.

And it was freezing. The cold that comes off the river near the Grotto could chill you to the bone. At night, walking the five blocks back to the hotel in the empty streets, I would pray that I would not be attacked in my vulnerability. I later came to the conclusion that not even the thieves thought it worth their while to stalk these cold deserted streets.

Thus, my one-week pilgrimage of desolation began. My last trip had been at the height of the summer when one sees Lourdes in all its glory, full of people, magnificent processions and graces. Now, it felt as if I had walked out of a color picture into a black-and-white print. I would have to endure a pilgrimage quite different from the merely “empty” one that I had planned.

 

Pilgrimage Inside the Silence

Indeed, it took a little while to get used to the desolation, silence, and cold. As I made my way to the Grotto several times a day, I came to realize there was something very calming and alluring about the shrine without all the “noise” of the crowds. It increasingly drew me there.

LourdesWhen the noise stops, it is easier to notice things. The sanctuary bells seemed to be crisper and more beautiful. Sights like the lighted medieval castle that at night appeared to float on the hill near the sanctuary seemed more fairytale-like. The candles seem to burn with greater intensity.

Although it is probably theologically incorrect, it seemed the prayers at the sanctuary were more unobstructed. You had the sense that your prayers were going straight to Our Lady at the Grotto.

There was especially noticeable at night amid the cold when the rest of the world disappeared and only the heavens above could be seen.

One night, snow started to fall that only added to this overall impression of calm isolation. You felt that you could stay for hours, but there was always a point when the maternal solicitude of Our Lady intervened and you sensed it was time to leave the cold and return to the warm hotel.

  

 

A Tremendous Unburdening

Of course, some things at the sanctuary were still open despite everything. These included the baths. The baths are enclosed shallow stone pools with water from the miraculous spring at the Grotto. Pilgrims are invited to immerse themselves in the pools for healing of mind and body. Usually the baths are full of lines of pilgrims divided by men and women waiting their turn. However, this time I was the only one there.

The baths are a great wonder of Lourdes. The volunteers who help you are extremely respectful and charitable. Everything is done modestly and without any embarrassment. The aproned helpers hold a towel in front of you as you prepare for the bath and then wrap it around you. They lead you to the pool and then ask you to pray with them. You are then told to sit in the pool and the water comes up to your neck.

Thankfully the water was cold but not the icy cold that I expected. The helpers then offered me water from a pitcher to wash my face and drink. I did not receive any special cure after the baths, but I can say I sensed a tremendous unburdening of useless cares that stayed with me throughout the pilgrimage.

 

Sign at LourdesWasting Lourdes Water

I was disappointed by the new arrangements for getting Lourdes water. I had been used to the faucets right near the Grotto from which the water, like graces, flowed exuberantly and abundantly. This is no longer possible since the faucets have been removed and replaced with low volume faucets that will not allow a person to easily fill containers.

According to a brochure, the new faucets allow one to make a symbolic gesture of “washing” and “drinking.” To fill containers one must go to another place some seventy paces away near the river.

There was also a sign at both locations warning that water is a precious resource and should not be wasted. Given Our Lady’s spring has delivered millions of gallons of water to the faithful over the decades, it is hard not to see a disturbing ecological overtone to the new instructions…

 

The Wonders of Lourdes

There are many other wonders at Lourdes. I was, for example, struck at how the favors of Our Lady are literally written in stone. The inside walls of the Basilica, crypt and Rosary Chapel are all sheathed in marble stones engraved with thousands of messages of thanksgiving for graces given and cures received.

There is the marvelous Way of the Cross of life-size cast iron statues that occupies a huge hill next to the sanctuary. Again there was no one around, and I did the way of the cross alone. From the height of the Calvary, I was surprised by a magnificent panorama of the snow-capped Pyrenees Mountains.

And there was the charm of the town itself, the people, and its markets. The town center is some distance from the sanctuary and did have some activity that allowed one to interact with the people. There were also the pilgrims, albeit few, who share in the wonders done there and with whom you can talk. They come from all over the world drawn by Our Lady’s special blessings.

 

Ask Anything

The pilgrimage of desolation became one of consolation. In the desolate silence, you gradually acquired the habit of thinking, reflecting, and praying. What attracted me the most was the Grotto, which is the heart and soul of Lourdes. When you are almost alone with Our Lady, you experience a kind of sacral intimacy by which you feel you can ask her anything without inhibition. It was easy to spend time asking, asking, and asking yet again. There was time to pray for the crisis inside the Church, for America, and family and friends. And returning to the hotel, you thought of yet more things to ask.

And Our Lady responds by encouraging your petitions. Her statue at the Grotto is discrete, polite, and very French. She looks slightly upward as if to say “ask me anything because I know how to arrange everything with my Son.” And you are compelled to comply.

 

Desolation or Crowds?

As the weekend approached, however, the “crowds” started to arrive. Sometimes thirty or even fifty people would arrive at a time. After a week of desolation, these few pilgrims seemed like a multitude that broke the desolation. Of course, I would never begrudge these pilgrims their chance to come to the Blessed Mother. But it ironically served to highlight that the desolation I had originally feared was now immensely treasured.

As one who has experienced both the pilgrimage of what might be called triumph (with the crowds) and that of desolation, I asked myself which one was preferable.

I am inclined to say both have their role. There are times in the history of the Church, like our own, that are best expressed by the desolation. It is then when pilgrimages like these teach us to abstract from the noise of the world and be attentive to grace. In the midst of the desolation, we sense a greater need to go straight to Our Lady unobstructed, and this gives us courage.

However, there are other times when the pilgrimage of triumph helps us grow spiritually. We sense the universal mission of the Church that joyfully unites all peoples. We sense the enormous attraction of the Church even in our neo-pagan times. It is good that there be huge triumphant rosary processions to assure us and to create in us the certainty that the Church will prevail despite everything.

In the pilgrimage of our own lives, we all go through times of desolation and triumph. Each has its role, lessons, and special graces. Both are necessary and part of life. The important thing is the object our pilgrimage which is found in Our Lady who leads us to God and heaven. With this in mind, whichever pilgrimage you choose, you will never go away disappointed.

Street in Lourdes

 


As seen in Crisis Magazine

 

 

Quote of the day

DAILY QUOTE for September 17, 2021

Charity is that with which no man is lost, and without which...

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September 17

 

Charity is that with which

no man is lost, and

without which

no man is saved.

St. Robert Bellarmine


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Saint of the day

SAINT OF THE DAY

St. Robert Bellarmine

Under Elizabeth I, his writings were forbidden reading under...

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St. Robert Bellarmine

Roberto Bellarmino was born into impoverished Tuscan nobility at Montepulciano on October 4, 1542. He was the third of ten children born to Vincenzo Bellarmino and Cinthia Cervini, a sister of Cardinal Marcello Cervini, who later became Pope Marcellus II. Educated at the Jesuit College in Montepulciano, he entered the Society of Jesus at the age of eighteen. After studying philosophy at the Roman College, he taught first at Florence and then at Mondovi. He began his theological studies in Padua in 1567, but was sent to Louvain two years later in order that he might obtain a fuller acquaintance with the heretical teachings of the time.  

Bellarmine was ordained a priest in Flanders and quickly obtained a reputation both as a professor and a preacher, attracting Catholics and Protestants alike by his sermons. In 1576 he was recalled to Italy, and entrusted with the chair of Controversies recently founded at the Roman College. He proved himself equal to the arduous task, and the lectures he delivered were later compiled into his most renowned work, “De Controversiis” - Disputations on the Controversies of the Christian Faith. Bellarmine's monumental work was the earliest attempt to systematize the various controversies of the time, and made an immense impression throughout Europe. It dealt such a blow to Protestantism in Germany and England that special university chairs were founded in order to provide replies to it. Theodore of Blaise, an important Protestant leader who succeeded Calvin, acknowledged that “This is the work that defeated us.” So numerous were the conversions wrought by it that Queen Elizabeth I of England decreed that anyone who was not a doctor in theology was forbidden to read Bellarmine’s writings under penalty of death. To the present day, it remains an uncontested standard of orthodoxy that has yet to be superseded. In recognition of this, Benedict XV gave Bellarmine the title of “Hammer of Heresies” in 1921.  

In 1588 Bellarmine was made Spiritual Father to the Roman College, but in 1590 he went with Cardinal Gaetano as theologian to the embassy Sixtus V was then sending into France to protect the interests of the Church amidst the troubles of the civil wars. While in France news reached him that Sixtus, who had warmly accepted the dedication of his “De Controversiis”, was now proposing to put its first volume on the Index. This was because he had discovered that it assigned to the Holy See not a direct but only an indirect power over temporal authorities. Bellarmine, whose loyalty to the Holy See was intense, took this greatly to heart; it was, however, averted by the death of Sixtus, and the new pope, Gregory XIV, even granted to Bellarmine’s work the distinction of a special approbation. Gaetano’s mission now terminating, Bellarmine resumed his work as Spiritual Father, and had the consolation of guiding the last years of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, who died in the Roman College in 1591. Many years later he had the further consolation of successfully promoting the beatification of the saintly youth. It was also at this time that he sat on the final commission for the revision of the Vulgate translation of the Holy Scriptures.

In 1592 Bellarmine was made Rector of the Roman College, and in 1595 Provincial of Naples. In 1597 Clement VIII recalled him to Rome and made him his own theologian as well as Examiner of Bishops and Consultor of the Holy Office. “The Church of God has not his equal in learning,” he stated when making him a Cardinal in 1599. Bellarmine’s appointment as Cardinal Inquisitor soon followed. In 1602 Bellarmine was appointed as the Archbishop of Capua and consecrated by Pope Clement VIII himself, an honor usually accorded as a mark of special regard.

Three years later, Clement VIII died, and was succeeded by Leo XI who reigned only twenty-six days, and then by Paul V. In both conclaves, especially that latter, the name of Bellarmine was much before the electors, greatly to his own distress. The new pope insisted on keeping him at Rome, and the cardinal, obediently complying, demanded that at least he should be released from an episcopal charge the duties of which he could no longer fulfill. He was now made a member of the Holy Office and of other congregations, and thenceforth was the chief advisor of the Holy See in the theological department of its administration.

Bellarmine became one of the most important figures of the Counter-Reformation and the period will be forever marked by his method of confronting heresy: he understood that one cannot do away with a heresy by only preaching the truth; it was also necessary to attack and smash the error. By this method he converted heretics, bringing them back into union with the Church. The profound spiritual treatises that emanated from his pen earned for him the title of Doctor of the Church. But while he was a champion of orthodoxy and a brilliant polemicist, Bellarmine was also a man of capable of dealing with the most sensitive souls guiding them to sanctity as he did with St. Louis Gonzaga. This prodigious apostolate could only spring from a great calmness of spirit and deep interior life.

His death in the summer of 1621 was most edifying and a fitting end to a life which had been no less remarkable for its virtues than for its tremendous achievements. Accordingly, there was a general expectation amongst those who knew him intimately that his cause would be promptly introduced and swiftly concluded. However, reality proved to be otherwise. Although he was declared Venerable in 1627, technical obstacles arose in regards to the beatification process, delaying the progress of his cause for 300 years. Bellarmine was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930 and declared a Doctor of the Church and patron saint of catechists the following year.

Weekly Story

WEEKLY STORY

There was once a priest who had a special devotion to the so...

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One Good Turn Deserves Another

There was once a priest who had a special devotion to the sorrows of Mary. He would often remain alone in the chapel to commiserate the sorrows of his Lady.

So intently did he meditate on the sorrows endured by Mary Most Holy that, moved by compassion, he was accustomed to wipe the face of a statue of the sorrowful Virgin with a little cloth, as though real tears flowed there.

Now this good priest became quite ill. When he was given up by his physicians, and was going to breathe his last, he saw a beautiful Lady by his side. She consoled him with her words, and with a handkerchief gently wiped the sweat from his brow.

With this, the priest was miraculously cured.

When he found himself well, he said: "But, my Lady, who are you who practice such charity towards me?" "I am she," answered Mary, "whose tears you have so often dried,” and she disappeared.

From the Glories of Mary, by St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori.

There was once a priest who had a special devotion to the sorrows of Mary. He would often remain alone in the chapel to commiserate the sorrows of his Lady.